The mission for the Rochester Grizzlies over their final nine games is easier said than done: Don’t take your feet off the gas.
With nine games to go in the regular season, the Grizzlies have a five-point lead over their rival Peoria Mustangs. To boil it down: Any combination of seven Grizzlies wins in regulation or Peoria losses in regulation would give Rochester its second consecutive NA3HL Central Division championship.
The Grizzlies also have six of their final nine games at home, beginning with two games against the Oregon (Wis.) Tradesmen, Friday and Saturday at the Rochester Recreation Center. Opening puck drop is set for 7:05 p.m. both nights.
“We set up our practices, and we tell the guys from Day 1 that hopefully practices are the toughest days of the week,” Grizzlies head coach Chris Ratzloff said. “That’s how we need to compete. We need to be tough on each other, and they have been. The guys have battled hard this week.”
That’s a welcomed sign for the Grizzlies coaching staff, who didn’t feel like the team played a full 60 minutes on Friday or Saturday last weekend in a pair of victories against the Milwaukee Power. Rochester won 7-2 at home on Friday, and 4-0 at Milwaukee on Saturday to improve to 25-5-1.
The team’s coaches and players know they’ll need those complete-game efforts over the next month as they ramp up for the postseason, and they’ll need to carry that mindset into late March and possibly April, when the NA3HL national champion is determined at the Fraser Cup championships.
“We’re trying to tell the guys … if you prepare the same way and treat it like it’s Game 7 of the Stanley Cup every night out, you’re going to get the same performance out of yourself regardless of who you’re playing against,” Grizzlies assistant coach Mike Aikens said.
This weekend’s series could be a preview of a first-round NA3HL Central Division playoffs series. The Tradesmen (14-14-0) currently sit fourth in the division, four points behind the third-place St. Louis Jr. Blues.
Rochester is 3-1-0 this season against Oregon, a southern suburb of Madison, Wis. The teams haven’t met since they split a two-game series at Oregon on Nov. 20-21. Now they’ll meet four times in the next five games, as Rochester goes to Oregon on March 5-6.
“They were a thorn in our side last year,” Ratzloff said of the Tradesmen. “We need to show up this weekend and play the way we’re capable of playing and don’t worry about who’s on the other side.
“We can’t give them chances because they’re very opportunistic. When they get chances, they score goals.”
Rochester is paced by third-year forwards Peyton Hart (20 goals, 37 points) and Matt DeRosa (14 goals, 27 points). Goalies Shane Soderwall (1.27) and Zach Wiese (1.54) have been outstanding, too, ranking No. 1 and 3, respectively, in the entire NA3HL in goals-against average.
The Tradesmen are led by veteran forwards Sam Vanderhoeven (32 points) and Parker Severson (30), and a former Grizzly, forward Devin Hays, who has 16 points in 25 games for Oregon this season.
“They play hard, they play with structure and they try to play the game the right way,” Aikens said. “They make it hard on you. If we don’t show up with our A-game, they can beat us, no doubt.”
Rochester is happy to be anchored at its home arena once again, after spending nearly two months earlier this season practicing and playing games on the road due to a COVID-19 lockdown of arenas around the state.
With slightly loosened restrictions in place, the team can also now welcome 250 fans into the rink for games, up from 150 a few weeks ago.
“It’s good just because we’re not on the bus all the time,” Ratzloff said. “Being on the road for so long all in one stretch wasn’t as bad as it might seem, just because we were in a routine and able to bond as a team.
“It wasn’t that bad, but it’s going to be a lot better for guys just being able to sleep in their own beds. And it’s amazing what a difference 100 more fans has made, with the noise and the atmosphere.”